A family company now in its second generation, Bangerter Microtechnik manufactures ceramic components for a variety of industries, such as medical, watchmaking, aviation and space, across its three sites in Switzerland. CEO Marc Bangerter speaks to Medical Device Developments about the diverse applications for these multifaceted materials and where their greatest value lies.
Founded in 1969, Bangerter Microtechnik first turned its hand - and its knowledge of ceramic materials - to medical devices in the 1980s. Today, the medical industry makes up a significant part of its business, but the company's ongoing service to numerous other industries also has its advantages, according to CEO Marc Bangerter.
"On several occasions, we developed a solution for a component in the watch industry and later we were able to use the same process for a medical component," he says. "To supply many different industries is definitely an advantage and our clients benefit from our broad experience."
As broad as the company's industrial scope may be, its expertise is highly specialised. "We have a clear focus on small precision components made of super-hard materials such as ceramics and tungsten carbide, and we are a leader in this field," Bangerter says. "Having said that, we also take on very challenging projects that other companies may decline."
With an extensive range of machinery, from five-axis CNC grinding centres to specialised equipment developed in house, Bangerter Microtechnik has a full toolbox at its disposal. It can manufacture ceramic wall thickness down to 0.05mm - the width of human hair - and create polished surface finishes and tight tolerances in the sub-micron to millimetre range.
Bangerter is keen to point out, however, that impressive kit alone is not sufficient: "A machine by itself does not provide a solution for manufacturing a component efficiently. It is the comprehensive understanding of the entire project and the material with the right manufacturing strategy as well as the appropriate machinery that leads to success."
In fact, the company is often involved in a client's project right from the design process. Working closely with them to outline the desired functionality of a device or component, Bangerter's engineering and manufacturing experts can custom design the process required to deliver it to specifications and on time.
"In the case of a complex component or assembly, we structure the project with feasibility studies, prototypes, pilot batch and serial manufacturing," he adds. "In all the project work, we also discuss quality management aspects and packaging."
In the medical industry, ceramics are widely used in areas including artificial hip and knee joints, dental implants, implantable blood pumps and catheters. Other uses include components for endoscopy, hearing aids and dialysis.
The biocompatibility of the materials is naturally a big plus but they can also provide certain key advantages over metals. In an MRI setting, for example, ceramic components can provide the strength required while not interfering with the magnetic field.
Durability in the longer term is another major advantage, and it is this that often makes ceramics a wise choice over metals, despite the apparent comparative cheapness of the latter, Bangerter argues.
"In applying ceramics, the product quality is substantially improved due to the higher durability or the smaller size achievable," he explains. "Some extra costs will be incurred at the beginning when applying ceramics but, over the product life cycle, its use is normally more cost-effective."
Aside from the cost of the material, surely components that are manufactured solely in Switzerland are, by default, too expensive for most clients? Not so, says Bangerter: "Since we provide in-depth client support from the choice of material to the design, we develop highly cost-effective solutions."
The ceramic materials the company most commonly supplies to the medical industry are zirconia and alumina, both types of oxide ceramics, but non-oxide ceramics such as silicon nitride are also used. Zirconia provides the same modulus of elasticity as steel, and offers high flexural strength.
For Bangerter, these are qualities and values that will only grow and improve with time, and he is optimistic for the future of ceramics and their continuing contribution to medical technology.
"The developments in material and manufacturing processes will continue to be strong, and we can expect to see ceramics with improved characteristics," Bangerter says. "In addition, machining capabilities will be developed to reduce manufacturing time and hence reduce costs."